‘Monster’ Hurricane Irene is headed right for us, pretty much, almost!

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Today's tabloids, August 25, 2011. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

The New York Post: Let's start with this satellite image! Looking closely, this giant swirling patch of white hovering over the blue-green marble of the northern Caribbean looks to be as wide as Cuba and as tall. Enormous! The rare instance in which the satellite image really tells you what you need to know, and fills you with horror when you imagine that thing continuing its apparent northwesterly course right for the East Coast of the U.S.

That's not the way these things work of course, and inside, the Post is careful not to set us up for too much drama. "MEAN IRENE" reads the main hed; the dek is "Monster 'cane zeros in on NYC."

That's not quite what the paper says inside: In fact it's expected that the closest the center of the storm might come to the city is Montauk. And the caption seems to tell a slightly different story: "The angry eye of Hurricane Irene whirls menacingly over the Caribbean yesterday as it heads for a path that could put it on a collision course with New York this weekend."

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Daily News: The colors look better, brighter, and the contrast more fun, in the version of the photo we get on the cover of the News today, though I wonder whether that's a printing issue? We'll have to get to the bottom of the relative merits of the two tabloids' presses another time.

At any rate, set against the intense blue, green and white of the satellite photo of Hurricane Irene used here too is the text "MONSTER!" in knockout-white type with a hard-edged black drop-shadow. "Angry Irene roars straight for U.S. & city." Again, not quite. And in fact, inside, the paper does a lot less to highlight the possibility the storm will blow over than does the Post. But what they are selling here is the chance that something really big is about to happen here. Once you're doing that, why not commit?

Observations: Giant storms like the Category 3 Hurricane Irene presently moving toward American soil from the Atlantic present a dilemma for newspapers like our two tabloids. The storm presently features winds greater than 120 miles per hour in velocity and massive, torrential rainclouds; it battered the Bahamas yesterday, and by Saturday is expected to make landfall at North Carolina's Outer Banks beaches before heading up the East Coast. But the fact is these storms very rarely retain much of their power after they've bumpered up against their first patches of mid-Atlantic soil, and their power wanes as they move up the coast as a rule.

The last time a hurricane's center passed within 75 miles of New York City was in 1985, when Hurricane Gloria whipped through. (I remember the surges coming up off the East River during Gloria from my well-placed position on Roosevelt Island. That was fun!) But a newspaper can't afford to have been wrong if in fact the storm creates what emergency officials think is the worst-case scenario in New York, including serious storm surges from ocean swells in low-lying areas, serious property damage and massive flooding. The horror of hurricanes like Katrina seriously altered the city's point of view on preparedness, after all. So why not focus on people who are scouring Home Depot for survival kits, extra flashlights etc., even if one suspects that the storm will do little more than provide a nice backdrop for staying in and watching a horror movie Saturday night?

And whatever else is true, the crop on these front-page photos makes Irene look like a serious planetary event. That both papers chose them is no surprise. But I wonder, if the satellite photos hadn't looked so impressive, whether the papers might have made the story share the page with other stuff.

In any case, these are the days when the display copy is really all there is to compare. The Post's is more honest: IRENE is MEAN, wherever she ends up going. And the paper is careful: the hurricane is "zeroing" in on us, but the caption beneath the photo says that the hurricane is heading "for a path that could put it on a collision course" with the city. Which is it?

I wonder if all that hemming and hawing just makes the cover unnecessarily complicated. The News doesn't suffer that problem. As far as they are concerned, Irene is angry, and she is coming right here. We'll see.

Winner: Daily News.